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Today at "Occupy" Toronto

Between the discourse that rejects every sudden social movement that is limited and imperfect, and the discourse that fetishizes every new movementist brand with the ahistorical belief that these moments are Unique and Revolutionary, is the reality of the #occupy movement.  Neither discourse is capable of providing a concrete analysis of a concrete situation; both project their own delusions, distorting reality, on this explosive but limited event.  The amount of "I will never get involved because I'm smarter and more radical" complaints are equaled only by the "I'm going to tail this movement because it is so awesome and liberating" statements.  Although those of us who are communists are supposed to be thinking dialectically, and finding the nuanced unity of opposites in our understanding of this moment, we tend to swing to either side in how we make sense of this fragile event.  Either position will result in an inability to take advantage of this opportunity: the more-radical-than-thous will not even engage with the possibility of organizing in these spaces (aside from maybe going to complain or to sell their papers); the tailists won't organize because they are generally under the impression that the movement will move magically and spontaneously from the pre-political to the revolutionary––socialism "from below" where the party builds itself out of thin air.

The truth, however, is that this space is full of radical potential while, at the very same time, entirely limited by its own imperfection.  This unity of opposites, due to the heterogenous nature of the movement, varies from site to site, both in the same city and elsewhere, so that sometimes the potential is more readily apparent and at other times the limits are clear.  From my own experience with the movement in my city, from what I have encountered thus far with the group in which I'm involved, I am alternately hopeful and frustrated.  Hopeful because it is clear that the potential for organization is concentrated in an incoherent movement; frustrated because I know that this incoherence, which eventually allows only a coherent petty bourgeois ideology to emerge, results in significant problems.

The first and obvious problem, a significant roadblock to organizing, is the fact that there is an informal leadership that is doing little more than promoting a social democrat we're-all-in-this-together-as-the-99 agenda.  The idea that the police are our friends, that some of the [non-]leaders are offering to collaborate with the pigs and CSIS, is only the most obvious manifestation of this social democrat domination.  We can also speak of the calls for unity amongst forces that should not be unified in any revolutionary structure, the typical tears shed about the disappearing middle-class, or the invectives to fix the voting system and that writing to your parliamentary representatives is synonymous with social equality.  The larger problem, however, is in the process that promotes certain people to leadership allowing for a reification of this opportunist ideology.  

Those who are emerging as leaders––aside from those social networkers who caught the zeitgeist, called the movement, and placed themselves in organizational positions "by consensus"––are those who camp out at the occupation site.  It makes sense that the people who will have the most command of a movement like this will be those who are involved in a day-to-day basis because they will quickly discover how things work, put processes into motion, and be recognized as the people who are always there.  And yet we need to question how and why certain people have the autonomy and agency to camp out indefinitely: the camping activists are not the homeless, are not people who are jobless because they are absurdly poor, but representatives of a class that possess the privilege of time––that is, subsidized jobless students, slumming anarcho-punks from the suburbs, or even people paid by large and suspicious organizations (i.e. the NDP) to always be present.  Although there is a current and troubling school of thought that imagines predominantly white and male kids are somehow the new revolutionary class, I am of the opinion (and an opinion that comes from a concrete analysis of history) that the opposite is the case: their class composition does not make them essentially revolutionary; indeed, if the current limits of the #occupy movement are anything to go by, the opposite is the case.

From this problem of the informalized leadership emerges the successive problem of that incoherence that reifies a commitment to a desire for a more humane capitalism.  Today I participated in a breakaway march that left the park to temporarily occupy the financial district (where the site of occupation should have been, in my opinion, in the first place).  The vast majority of the speeches delivered through the over-fetishized "peoples sound system" demonstrated little more than a desire to return to a stronger welfare capitalism, a demand that the cops join us because they are also part of the ninety-nine, and how if we were really radical we would write letters to our MPs and MPPs as soon as we got home.  Some activists who had their faces covered out of fear of being targeted by the pigs (and these were most often people of colour) were told that they shouldn't be covering their faces because "we are all open here."  Those unaccustomed to protesting acquiesced to police intimidation pretty quickly, regardless of the warnings of those of us who warned them that they needed to stand their ground, because the "leaders" kept feeding them information about time regulations, and respecting the other members of the 99 whose lives we were disrupting, and oh yeah, we also had a police liaison who was doing a terrific job.  (Side point: if you have a police liaison you are automatically not a revolutionary movement.)  We were reminded by some of the more leaderly non-leaders that this was a very "historic" moment… and yet everything is historical, but I assume he meant "world historical" (this is a Unique Event) which is something I reject utterly––this is a new formal repetition of older events, and perhaps if we could spend the time to learn from the failures and limits of those older events we wouldn't keep making the same bloody mistakes.

We also decided (I use "we" ironically because of the enforced "consensus" model that does not speak for my politics or the politics of others involved) to form a giant 99% in Dundas Square so the news helicopters could "get our message" and then dance around in a circle.  What was the most counter-revolutionary moment of the day, however, was when it was decided, again "by consensus", to sing the national anthem.  This was clearly an enforced "consensus" moment because the moment it was suggested a significant number of us, including an indigenous contingent, voiced our dissent and yet the anthem was still performed.  After the anthem was sung one of the indigenous representatives was permitted to voice his distaste in a megaphone, but the majority of the people singing the genocidal song just clapped and cheered his speech as if it had nothing to do with their desire to celebrate colonialism.

Inside these limits, however, there was still a strange potentiality.  Throughout the march the group I was with was able to speak with people both in the march and on the sidewalks, spread very clear communist propaganda, and thus use the spectacle of the march to communicate with people currently outside of the activist terrain.  We also intervened when it was necessary within this space: we began the anti-capitalist and anti-colonial chant against the Canadian anthem (much to the annoyance of the consensus fetishizers) that others noticed, some even participating in; one of our members defended the right for other protestors to cover their faces.  In practice we supported the marchers but we tied our practice to a different ideology.

I do not believe, for one moment, that this movement will result in the end of capitalism; it is very clear that its current [non-]leadership, at least in my city, is tied to a social democrat agenda and, lacking any clear organization, unable to be anything more than a collected site of spontaneous anger.  I still believe, however, that is important to agitate within these spaces for something more… but in order to do so we must maintain a disciplined, principled, and, above all, sober attitude.


  1. I partially agree and partially disagree. To even think that this kind of movement could somehow end capitalism on its own is incredibly naive, but to dismiss its ability to be the spark that lights the prairie fire in the form of a mass workers' uprising that will have a chance of ending capitalism is even more naive. And I believe it is world-historical and will be remembered that way in the future. Even if people go inside for the winter, they will come out again in the spring in larger numbers. This outpouring of anger will not be forgotten.

  2. At Sunday's GA, an NDP candidate picked up the megaphone and spoke... some people objected, but most cheered when she was done speaking.

    Of the bus full of university students that rode to Toronto with me for the occupation, I believe only 2 or 3 were anti-capitalists to any real degree. Any romanticized notion that I had about what the occupied movement actually has been abandoned, although I still see possibilities for what it could be.

    I am getting ready to write a post about it now (based on the 8 pages of notes I took on the busride home), and you have touched on a lot of what I have noticed (supposed non-leaders, whiteness, etc). I agree with a lot of what you said here and I have been asking myself how do we take back OUR streets when we are marching on the sidewalks?

    Also, they sang the national anthem? Seriously?

  3. Michael: I am not dismissing the fact that this movement might be a spark to light a prairie fire but only pointing out that, as it currently stands and unless those of us who want this prairie fire get involved clearly and with clearly articulated principles, it will never become that. I don't see it as world-historical because I don't see it as producing a world historical rupture, at least not as it currently stands – that is the point. If it does change into something more radical that produces structures that have the ability to manifest a rupture, then we can see it as world-historical. Now, at this moment, as long as it remains limited by its current boundaries, it is not at a world-historical stage. So when its [non]organizers speak of it in these terms, but then in the same sentence say the same non world-historical crap that we have repeated in these spaces for the past decade, I cannot help but be wary. At the moment it's a new historical form of the same not world-historical movementist essence.

    Ms. Marx: I agree that it is still wise, but soberly and without romanticization, to see this space as one with radical potential; we do a disservice to our politics if we either pretend that it is already completely radicalized or ignore it altogether. Looking forward to your post. And yes, they seriously sang the national anthem.

  4. I really like the people's mic. It's a disciplinary tool. It requires everyone to repeat (and think.) Also builds collectivity. Yes, it's overused, but, I think it has military applications.

  5. I also sort of a agree and sort of disagree. We really need more leftists to spend time organizing there, go on the marches, affect things. Of course not everyone can camp out- I can and so I am- but we need to be in all these committees pushing real politics. This is the biggest thing happening, social movement wise, in the world right now, and it behooves us not to stand on the sidelines. I'm glad to see comrades from the PRAC there and hope that we can continue to push real politics and analysis in this weird, frustrating space that is nonetheless filled with revolutionary potential.

  6. Although I agree with the sentiment, I think it's slightly problematic to say this is "the biggest thing happening in the world right now" – sort of eurocentric, no? Thousands upon thousands of Naxalites have been carrying on an armed struggle in India with a very clear revolutionary agenda; Kashmir is separating and recently a Kashmiri revolutionary party has been formed; Nepal is in a line struggle after years of a massive peoples war...

    While I agree it is important to get involved with this social movement (that I agree is filled with revolutionary potential), it is nowhere even as close as important as these movements which have been generally ignored by a very inward looking eurocentric left. We tend to be myopic and get excited over things that are often a repetition of past and similar movements (this is an echo of the SDS or May 68, but the latter was itself a pale echo of the GPCR), simply because they happen in our back yards, but we forget that most often we are surpassed in mass mobilized revolutionary fervour in the peripheries.

    1. I think I might have wrote that Anonymous comment? i can't remember. Nor can I remember why I thought it was the 'biggest thing happening in the world right now.' Um. I guess sometimes you get caught up in things and lose perspective, like during the 3903 strike when it felt like it was of Historical Importance to The Labour Movement. Well, I guess it was, at least, the biggest thing happening in Toronto right then. And the few leftists there were completely fucking swamped, I know that, trying to minimize stabbings rather than do serious political interventions. (stabbings were indeed minimized)

      My analysis of the class composition has changed a bit. The people that stuck it out, while some of them came from middle class, are becoming (or have become) steadily lumpenized. It was kind of impossible to stick it out there and camp out and not realize at some point that you were living in a park with a bunch of homeless people. Also a lot of people lost their jobs/ gave up on their jobs / dropped out during the process.

    2. Interesting point about lumpenization...

      Funny you should mention the 3903 strike because I'm about to leave for a meeting that may or may not result in yet another 3903 strike. I think there are still some people who think the last strike was the biggest thing ever, so how will they compare that with the [possible] next one?

    3. I think there can be a confusion about 'biggest thing FOR ME' and 'biggest thing ever'. good luck with bargaining and voting- 3903 has been an important communist recruiting ground in Toronto, one of the only spaces were communists openly do important praxis work and have to actually deal with political problems without pretending to be social democrats. It's hard to make decisions when you don't know where they will take you and it will affect your own life and the lives of many others- but that's what actual politics is.


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